Heart Failure Diagnosis Is Not A Death Sentence: Treatment Options Better Than Ever

Heart Failure diagnosis

Although it can be a severe disease, heart failure is not a death sentence, and treatment is now better than ever, says Kismet Rasmusson, nurse practitioner with the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute, one of the premier heart failure centers in the nation.

As part of National Heart Awareness month, and National Heart Failure Awareness Week (Feb. 14-21), this growing disease is getting more attention. 

Heart failure happens when the heart cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to support other organs in your body. Heart failure is a serious condition, but it does not mean that the heart has stopped beating.

Heart Failure in the United States:

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control , about 5.7 million adults in the United States have heart failure.
  • One in 9 deaths in 2009 included heart failure as contributing cause.
  • Heart failure costs the nation an estimated $30.7 billion each year. This total includes the cost of health care services, medications to treat heart failure, and missed days of work.

The heart is a muscle that pumps oxygen-rich blood to all parts of the body. When you have heart failure, the heart is not able to pump as well as it should, according to Rasmusson.

When this happens, blood and fluid may back up into the lungs (congestive heart failure), and some parts of the body don’t get enough oxygen-rich blood to work normally. These problems lead to the symptoms of heart failure, Rasmusson says. 

What causes heart failure?

Heart failure is a condition in which your heart can't pump enough blood to meet your body's needs. It frequently involves congestion (blood and fluids backing up in your system). Key symptoms may include shortness of breath, a dry and hacking cough, weight gain, swelling, and fatigue.

Heart failure develops because the heart muscle becomes weak or loses the ability to pump correctly. If the heart is not "squeezing" well to get enough blood to your body, you have systolic heart failure. If the heart can't "relax" to fill with enough blood between contractions, you have diastolic heart failure.

Heart failure is often caused by other conditions, such as atherosclerosis, heart attack, high blood pressure, heart valve problems, and alcohol or drug abuse. Heart muscle weakening and damage is often called cardiomyopathy, which literally means "heart muscle disease." Sometimes the damage occurs for no known reason. This is called idiopathic cardiomyopathy (idiopathic means "no known cause").

Risk Factors for Heart Failure

Diseases that damage your heart also increase your risk for heart failure. Some of these diseases include:

  • Coronary heart disease (the most common type of heart disease) and heart attacks.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Diabetes

Unhealthy behaviors can also increase your risk for heart failure, especially for people who have one of the diseases listed above. Unhealthy behaviors include:

  • Smoking tobacco.
  • Eating foods high in fat, cholesterol, and sodium.
  • Not getting enough physical activity.
  • Being obese.

How does heart failure affect the body?

Heart failure interferes with the kidney's normal function of eliminating excess sodium and waste products from the body. In congestive heart failure, the body retains more fluid, resulting in swelling of the ankles and legs. Fluid also collects in the lungs, which can cause shortness of breath. The changing fluid dynamics of the body in heart failure can also affect the kidneys and the liver.

Signs and Symptoms of Heart Failure

Common symptoms of heart failure include:

  • Shortness of breath during daily activities.
  • Having trouble breathing when lying down.
  • Weight gain with swelling in the feet, legs, ankles, or stomach.
  • Generally feeling tired or weak.

Treating Heart Failure

Early diagnosis and treatment can improve quality and length of life for people who have heart failure. Treatment usually involves taking medications, reducing sodium in the diet, and getting daily physical activity. People with heart failure also track their symptoms each day so that they can discuss these symptoms with their health care team.

“There are very well-proven medications that can strengthen the heart muscle and when taken can really help improve the heart function in many people,” said Rasmusson. 

Heart failure management is a treatment strategy that can improve your heart function, reduce your symptoms, and lengthen your life. The strategy combines several treatments, including lifestyle changes, medications, and heart procedures. 

Living with Heart Failure – Self Management 

Rasmusson says there are five things patients diagnosed with heart failure need to do every day at home to manage their heart failure. The following MAWDS acronym may help you remember — and follow — these basic steps:

  • Medications: Take your medications as prescribed by your doctor.
  • Activity: Stay active every day.
  • Weight: Weigh yourself each day.
  • Diet: Follow your diet.
  • Symptoms: Recognize your symptoms and know when to call for help.